Saudi TV channel eyes both political and economic ends

A new Saudi-owned channel, MBC Egypt, is set to begin broadcasting in November, primarily focusing on entertainment specifically tailored to millions of viewers in Egypt.

MBC’s media spokesperson in Egypt, Medhat Hassan, says a celebration will be held on 16 October to mark the launch of the channel, and to announce the schedule of programs and TV stars involved.

Meanwhile, Hassan makes it clear that unlike its regional sister channel, Al Arabiya, MBC Egypt is based on a solely entertainment proposition.

“MBC Egypt’s message is to focus primarily on entertainment of the Egyptian people. The channel has no political ideology, and is very keen to steer away from politics,” he says.

Observers argue that Arab audiences’ media preferences have become widely affected by the wave of revolutions across the region, with a mounting interest in politics — which translates into higher viewership rates for political news.

Media expert Yasser Abdel Aziz tells Egypt Independent that studies conducted by the Arab States Broadcasting Union before the revolutions in the Arab world showed that Arab viewers who watched political news constituted just 7 percent of total viewership rates.

But the EuroMedia 2011 report about media and the Arab Spring shows that TV viewership, especially for political news, witnessed a huge peak. In the first quarter of 2011, viewership of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya increased, with viewers tuning to the two channels “en masse.”

“Indeed the two Arabic news channels almost doubled their viewing figures in February,” the report says.

It is not traditional, observers argue, for channels to focus too much on entertainment while the general public’s interests are shifting toward politics. They say it can be read as a way to serve a political agenda.

Aziz argues that the country is undergoing a state of political openness that is greatly affecting regional politics, which attracts those affected to participate in the shaping of the Egyptian public opinion.

“Keeping the Egyptian audience fixated in front of the TV to watch entertainment could be intended to restructure the interests of the Egyptian audience,” Abdel Aziz says.

Toppled President Hosni Mubarak was often charged with sidelining politics from people’s public interests with a heavy amount of entertainment programming.

Meanwhile, MBC Egypt won’t be short of talk shows. These shows have been the forums for political talk on non-state TV channels, which are not allowed to run newscasts.

Hassan declines to mention which talk show hosts will appear on the new channel. But one of the most prominent anchors, Mona al-Shazly — former host of the renowned Al-Ashera Masa’an talk show, aired on the privately owned TV channel Dream — is said to have started negotiations for a show with MBC Egypt. Some media reports referred to the halt of these negotiations, but Shazly was not available for comment.

Launched in 1991, MBC is the first private Arab satellite channel, owned by Saudi businessman Waleed al-Ibrahim, brother-in-law of late Saudi King Fahd bin Abdel Aziz.

MBC’s major news channel, Al Arabiya — the second-largest Arabic news channel after Qatar’s Al Jazeera — is largely known for advancing a Saudi political agenda through its news coverage. A case in point is Egyptian media figure Hafez Al Mirazi, who had to give up his position at Al Arabiya for attempting to tackle Saudi internal politics on his daily show, “Studio al-Qahira.”

Right after the fall of Mubarak in February last year, Mirazi promised to analyze the political situation in Saudi Arabia in an episode of his program on Al Arabiya.

“In the new episode, we will discuss the effect of this [Mubarak ouster] on the situation inside Saudi Arabia. If [we manage to do this], Al Arabiya is an independent channel. If not, I say goodbye to you,” Mirazi told his audience on air one day after Mubarak’s ouster.

It was Mirazi’s last appearance on the channel.

Furthermore, the politicized editorial tendencies of the channel have been revealed by whistleblower WikiLeaks’ US embassy cables.

According to a cable from the US Embassy in Riyadh dated May 2009 and titled “Ideological and ownership trends in Saudi media,” Al Arabiya’s regional manager, Khalid al-Matrafi, told US officials that he was brought in to head Al Arabiya’s managerial team due to a “concern that young Saudis were particularly vulnerable to the calls of extremists, and that the station now targets its moderate news broadcasts to the 14- to 18-year-old demographic in short presentations of three minutes or less.”

MBC broadcasts a network of channels for entertainment, exclusively airing American movies, soap operas and reality TV shows, as well as producing and exclusively airing the Arabized versions of American reality TV shows.

“Al-Matrafi said the American programming on channels 4 and 5 were proving the most popular among Saudis. A look at the December 17 programming menu for MBC channel 4 reveals a 24-hour solid bloc of such programs as CBS and ABC Evening News, David Letterman, Desperate Housewives, Friends and similar fare, all uncensored and with Arabic subtitles,” the cable reads.

 “Channel 5 features US films of all categories, also with Arabic subtitles. Al-Matrafi told us that this programming is also very popular in remote, conservative corners of the country, where he said ‘you no longer see Bedouins, but kids in Western dress’ who are now interested in the outside world,” it continues.

The channel is also known for broadcasting Arabic drama, including series from Egypt, Syria and the Gulf, in addition to one channel for children. MBC was also the first channel to start the trend of airing Turkish soap operas almost four years ago, which has earned it many viewers.

The project is seen by some as a face to the expanding media wars in the region, particularly with Al Jazeera, which launched Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, an Egypt-specific channel, right after the 25 January revolution. The channel’s proposition is based on live coverage of mostly political events.

Indeed, the WikiLeaks cable quoted Matrafi describing MBC and Al Arabiya’s stance as countering the growing influence of Al Jazeera, and fostering “a moderate perspective among the country’s youth.”

It is in the spirit of this competition that other Saudi media investments in Egypt are seen. The Saudi-owned Rotana channel, which mostly airs entertainment, also launched an Egypt-specific station, Rotana Masriya, in May 2011. Alongside MBC Egypt, Rotana Masriya showcases a Saudi interest in tapping into the entertainment aspect of media in Egypt, as opposed to news, which is Al Jazeera’s stronghold.

Commercial goals are key to understanding this dichotomy. “Al Jazeera serves a purely political agenda, while Rotana and MBC serve both commercial and political interests — all competing to catch the attention of the Egyptian audience,” Abdel Aziz says.

Politics aside, Egypt can be a lucrative market for media. “Commercially, Egypt is a media hub. It is cheaper for Arab media to invest in Egypt than to invest in Dubai, for example,” says Safwat al-Alem, media professor at Cairo University. “With an audience of 80 million people in a vibrant and extremely rich cultural, social and political sphere, Egypt is a fortune for any media investor.”

But the motivations for investment are mixed, Abdel Aziz asserts.

“The bottom line is that media projects are not purely commercial, and not purely political at the same time,” he says.

This story originally appeared in Egypt Independent's print edition.

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